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Documentary Educational Resources,
50 Years Later

When Laurence Marshall, a founder of Raytheon, was traveling with his wife Lorna in South Africa to explore the use of microwave communication systems, they met a doctor planning a trek to discover “The Lost City of the Kalahari.” Invited to come along, Laurence took his eighteen-year-old son John to accompany him on the adventurous trip in 1950. Instead of a lost city, they found members of the !Kung bushmen—or Ju/’hoansi—who were still living as hunter-gatherers and following a peaceful lifestyle that seemed worlds away from New England, not to mention atomic-age America. Soon, Lorna and their daughter Elizabeth would join them and form an ad-hoc anthropological team with John documenting on his new 16mm camera. Supported by Harvard’s Peabody Museum, the family would visit many times, forming deep and lasting bonds with their welcoming friends, and John would dedicate the rest of his life to filming and fighting for the Ju/’hoansi, who were being steadily pushed from their traditional lands by many forces.

John’s early documentary The Hunters (1957) marked the first film production at Harvard and gave birth to the Film Study Center. He edited the film with Robert Gardner, who would go on to make many visual ethnographies of his own and be an instrumental force in shaping the Film Study Center, the Visual and Environmental Studies Department and, eventually, the Harvard Film Archive. Meanwhile, Margaret Mead recommended a promising still photographer-turned-anthropologist Timothy Asch to assist John with his filmmaking.

Asch and Marshall found common ground in an uncommon approach to ethnography. They respected the intelligence of both their audiences and those they filmed. John had many simple rules, including shooting at the same level as the subject and depicting each person on screen as a unique, complex individual, not just an anonymous member of a group of exotic people. Similar to John’s deep focus on his Ju/’hoansi friends, Asch became famous for his extensive series of films on the Yanomamö of Venezuela. Collaborating with anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon, his most acclaimed—and most postmodern—film, The Ax Fight (1975), depicts one event from multiple points of view, unprecedentedly revealing how an ethnographic documentary is made while dissecting human behavior and perception on both sides of the lens.

Asch and Marshall directly witnessed the destructive power of Western mythmaking, stereotyping and generalization of whole people and were loath to contribute to it. Both filmmakers concentrated passionately on the edifying aspects of filmmaking, downplaying the overly intellectual or the artistic. They found placing the artful over the authentic dangerous and disingenuous, compromising the integrity of the recorded moment. As Asch summarized, “my goal is to make films in which my own artistic drives are eclipsed by the subjects in the film.” In spite of this, their beautifully composed films are indeed marked by a distinct and revelatory mastery of the medium, an artistry that undoubtedly arises from this very ambition to clearly and dynamically communicate the complexity of a filmed event. They may have invented the ethnographic “sequence” film—a short, modular work describing a single event in detail. Ideally, these could then be screened together to show one culture in detail or grouped according to subject—for instance, domestic life, children’s games, or conflict resolution—among different peoples.

Asch continued to make films in Indonesia with his wife Patsy Asch and other collaborators; helped establish visual anthropology programs around the world; and became Director of the Center for Visual Anthropology at the University of Southern California. As for Marshall, when he was barred for twenty years from a Namibia under apartheid rule he worked on other immersive projects, such as a black-and-white verité series on police in Pittsburgh.

Partly out of a need to disseminate their “sequence” films that other distributors rejected, Marshall and Asch founded “Documentary Educational Resources” in 1968 out of an office in Somerville, Massachusetts. Initially, they produced and distributed their own work, and then began carrying other innovative educational films that fit within their progressive, ethical mindset. To this day, DER—now based in Watertown—focuses on documentaries that promote engagement rather than exploitation, and often those that are the outcome of sustained and conscientious relationships.

Today, DER is considered one of the primary sources for ethnographic films and has expanded its collection well beyond classic visual anthropology. In addition to the work of Asch and Marshall—which would also establish the Human Studies Film Archives at the Smithsonian in 1975—DER carries other essential titles by filmmakers including Robert Gardner, Jean Rouch, Sarah Elder and Leonard Kamerling, Bob Connolly and Robin Anderson. They continue to acquire entire film collections by important visual anthropologists who remain lesser-known in the US, such as Jacqueline Veuve, Jorge Prelorán, Yasuhiro Omori and Hu Tai-Li. Unlike distributors who may abandon less popular titles, DER keeps little-known yet relevant work in circulation and is dedicated to preserving and restoring important records of times and cultures long gone, while taking risks on new forms of documentary; their collection includes animations, diary films and experimental works.

The Harvard Film Archive is indebted to the founders and filmmakers of DER, in part, for its very existence, and the links between the two organizations continue to evolve. Aside from the connection to Harvard alumni Marshall and Gardner, Tim Asch was also a research fellow in the anthropology department at Harvard when he completed his Yanomamö films, and the documentaries of many Harvard filmmakers now grace DER’s shelves. Likewise, the HFA has screened the works of several DER documentarians over the years. At USC, Tim Asch mentored anthropology/film students Lucien Castaing-Taylor—now a renowned filmmaker and professor in Harvard’s VES Department—and Ilisa Barbash, also an accomplished filmmaker, writer, current Film Study Center Fellow and Museum Curator of Visual Anthropology at the Peabody, whose recent book Where the Roads All End details the significance of the Marshall family expedition photographs. Finally, in 2008, DER donated their film prints and elements to the Harvard Film Archive collection.

Spanning the geographic, aesthetic and chronologic diversity of films in the DER collection, the HFA’s selection features films recently released along with older films, most of which are now rarely screened outside the classroom and deserve the theatrical experience. The shows will be accompanied by a conversation on documentary sound recording at the Harvard Art Museums and a panel on John Marshall’s classic N!ai, The Story of a !Kung Woman at the Peabody, which will include a reception and an opportunity to experience Ilisa Barbash’s exhibit Kalahari Perspectives: Anthropology, Photography, and the Marshall Family opening September 29 at the Peabody Museum and remaining on view through March 31, 2019.

DER’s 50th anniversary celebrations coincide with the restoration of nine titles from the Yanomamö Collection by Tim Asch and Napoleon Chagnon. Some of these will be screened during a day-long event celebrating the work Tim Asch in the University of Southern California’s program “Documentary Educational Resources at 50: A Focus on the Films of Co-Founder Timothy Asch” on November 11. For more information on DER, visit www.der.org.

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